Editor’s note: William J. Norris, a veteran Chicago actor whose career included playing Scrooge for the Goodman production of A Christmas Carol for a dozen years and performing with the late Organic Theater in their legendary sci-fi serial, Warp!, died at his home in Iowa on November 30 at age 75. Mark Larson, author of Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater, compiled remembrances of Norris’s prolific and influential presence in Chicago theater from his colleagues for the Reader.
William J. Norris (interviewed by the author May 3, 2016): I had no endgame. I considered myself an actor, so I guess [my endgame] was to do what I did, period. Later on, I went, OK, if I can be an actor and make my living at it, that’s what I want to do. But I had no “15 years from now I want to be the artistic director of my own theater company” or “20 years from now I want to be in charge of the Goodman.” I had no ambitions in that regard. All I wanted to do was to do good theater and make my living from it. I would always tell people Chicago is a great place to begin a career. And to end one, too.
Robert Falls (artistic director, Goodman Theatre, 1986–): I think the fact that you and I are having this conversation, the fact that you’re putting together an oral history around William J. Norris, indicates a sort of reserved status for certain actors in a theater city that is relatively young.
Chicago theater as we know it––yes, it goes back to the Paul Sills–Ed Asner–Mike Nichols era [in the 50s], but it really kicked into high gear in the 70s and into the 80s. Bill is one of those figures who has worked across those decades. Bill’s the guy who rooted so many productions, and in that way, sort of was a root in Chicago theater.
In London, in theater circles, you sit in bars and hear stories of actors passing down the stories of when they were on stage with this or that legendary actor, what happened, what that actor did, who that actor worked with. What they’re doing is passing down a history through the stories of those actors.
Roche Schulfer (executive director, Goodman Theatre, 1980–): It’s kind of like [Alfred] Lunt and [Lynn] Fontanne who were great actors, but nothing of theirs was captured on film. We’re left with the memories people have of having seen Bill’s performances.
Paul Swanson (friend): I was thinking of Bill’s death and a question it raises for me. We always talk about the ephemeral nature of theater, how the beauty of theater is that something like Laurie Metcalf’s monologue in Balm in Gilead was there, it was brilliant, and then it goes into the great ether. But how does Chicago theater deal with the ephemeral nature of artists’ lives? Not just the ephemeral nature of performances, but lives. Is Bill someone who will be remembered?
John Ostrander (actor; writer of comic books; friend): I would say Bill Norris is an icon in Chicago theater, but I’m highly prejudiced. I first met Bill when I was a freshman at Loyola University in the Speech and Drama Department. That would be ’68. He’s been a friend ever since.
Dennis Začek (artistic director, Victory Gardens Theater, 1977-2011): Bill was an extraordinary guy. He was probably primarily known as an actor. But he was also a playwright. He was a teacher. On occasion, he was a director, and a choreographer, and a musician. And he did all these things extremely well.
Tom Mula (actor and playwright who also played Scrooge at the Goodman for seven years): I made a list of the plays that he wrote that I was aware of. He did Canticle of the Sun, which was about St. Francis at Wisdom Bridge with Billy Petersen playing St. Francis.
And he did Dillinger at Victory Gardens, again with Billy Petersen. And he did Johns about male hustlers on Clark and Diversey, Bloody Bess at Organic, and he cowrote the movie Re-Animator with Stuart Gordon [founder, Organic Theater Company] and Dennis Paoli.
Začek: And there was Lord Byron in His Satanic Majesty. They were all very good. But the way I would put it is there’s what you want to do in the theater, and then there’s what the theater wants you to do. And the theater wanted Bill to be an actor. And he was an extraordinary one.
Mula: He had a solid reputation as one of the best actors in town. I think it [goes back to] that time that he did The Caretaker with Mike Saad and Frank Galati, which Začek directed. That was a landmark production.
Marcie McVay (managing director, Victory Gardens Theater, 1974-2008): Bill did it years later at Writers [Theater, 2011], too, when he was more the age, and he was brilliant in that production as well. But, of course, the first one sticks in people’s minds. Partly because of the smallness of the space. A lot of the power of Chicago theater came from the intimacy of those spaces. And that was one where you couldn’t escape. He was there practically in your lap.
Steve Scott (director; associate producer, Goodman Theatre, 1980-2017): At that time, I was teaching at a horrible little school in Kansas, and I was looking to move. I had friends in Chicago that I came to visit, and one night we went to see The Caretaker. And Bill’s performance was so amazing that I thought, ‘If this is the kind of work that’s going on in Chicago!’ It convinced me that I really wanted to be around that. So, it was Bill’s performance that really awakened something in me in terms of what my future was going to be. And I came to Chicago.
Joe Mantegna (actor, Organic Theater Company): If you were starting a theater company, which we kinda were, you couldn’t pick a better member than somebody like him because you know that he’s never going to slack off; he’s going to be the first one there and the last one to leave and would do everything you asked of him and more.
Lenny Kleinfeld (Organic Theater Company member; coauthor, under the pseudonym Bury St. Edmund, Warp!; former Reader theater critic): Let’s put it this way: The one thing I ask of actors is that they make my writing sound better than it really is. Bill did that with every goddamn line. If there is an actor who is more reliable, lower maintenance, more fun to work with, then that actor has yet to be born. He had great discipline and was wickedly funny. His performances didn’t have any hamming or wasted motion. I mean, he could go big for comedy with the best of them, but he had enormous precision. And he just loved doing it, too. There was not a not a single cell or atom of diva in him anywhere. Least temperamental actor in the world.
B.J. Jones (artistic director, Northlight Theatre, 1998–): First time I saw Bill was in Warp! at the Organic. It was after they came back from New York. I’d never seen anything like Warp! before. I had a friend in New York who had seen it on Broadway , and he went crazy for it. He said, “You’ve got to see it if you get a chance. You’ve got to see it!” It was sort of a poor man’s theater. I remember them making all the sound effects with their mouths! They used a corkscrew for a ray gun. (Laughs). And everybody had, like, comic book costumes. It was dynamic and energetic. It was like Marvel come to life.
Cookie Gluck (costumer, Organic Theater Company): As a costumer at that time, I was clearly a total rookie. (Laughs.) Most of those costumes were just things we found that we threw together. And it became a real style, elevating ordinary things to allegory. Bill’s character, Symax, was dressed entirely in platinum-blonde wigs that were spray-painted purple and stitched together. There was a wig place down in the Loop and there was an interesting old guy there who sold me a carton of old platinum-blonde wigs that nobody wanted. But they were perfect for Symax.
Kate Fry (actor): I think the first time I worked with Bill was 20 years ago. I had always been aware of him, of course, for years and years and years because of his Scrooge [at the Goodman Theatre], and because I knew his history with the Organic, so even though I’m well into middle age now, there’s still always part of me that gets a little dazzled when I meet people who were the Chicago stalwarts in the 70s and 80s. I still get that way, and Bill was definitely one of those people. I remember thinking, even though it was a summer stock show, that I must be doing pretty well if I’m in a play with Bill Norris! I thought, “I hope he likes me!” With Bill, you kind of never know. You think he likes you until he just rips you a new one. And then I think, “Oh, I feel so honored. It is a pleasure to be ripped a new one by Bill Norris!”
Jamie Wild (Tiny Tim, Goodman Theatre, 1981–1983): He gave me this official-looking certificate, a service award for being “the first Tiny Tim I actually liked.” (Holds it up to the Zoom camera). It was signed by Ebenezer Scrooge. It was a joke, but I remember thinking, “He likes me!”
Mula: His expectations of himself are so high that he makes you bring your A game. He’s very disciplined, but I’d also say he was not shy about making high stakes choices, which is a lovely thing because it allows you a good ride.
Kleinfeld: He could discipline his fellow cast members and crack the whip with a one-liner. And he was one of the few people in the world who could let Stuart Gordon know that he’d gone a little too far, which wasn’t easy for most actors. Bill just had enormous respect from everyone. I’m not gushing; this is not a eulogy. I’m not making him out to be an angel. He was really that good.
Galen Ramsey (designer, stage manager; Bill’s partner): I hate to say this, he was hard on people. He wanted their best from them. I think part of that was coming out of the Organic, because those people all worked very, very hard. And they expected the best from each other. And so, after his years with the Organic, I think that became part of his personality.
Scott: He kind of embodied a work ethic that was part of Chicago theater as it was growing in the 70s. Succeeding generations who moved to Chicago understood what that was about from people like Bill.
Začek: Young people necessarily have an idea of the commitment and the hard work and the energy that people put in in the early 70s and in the 80s to create Chicago theater. At that time, there was academic [theater], there was the Goodman, and there was dinner theater, but when it came to the legitimate theater, and when it came to living playwrights and an opportunity for them and such a thing as the “Chicago style” of acting and “Chicago theater,” that all had to be created. It was both rewarding and very challenging. It sounds like I’m asking for people to recognize the past. And maybe I am.
For a young person looking back at that, the meaning might not be in the fact that it’s history, but the fact that it’s cyclical. They are coming into their own new period of struggle and what it demands. The discipline of Bill and many others that were, or are part of it still, can keep the theater alive, keep it growing. Maybe the lesson of Bill’s discipline and the drive to keep going will be of some help. I don’t know.
Fry: This is an era of everybody being “camera ready,” which is a huge part of actor training now, and everybody’s trying to work their shows around their shooting schedule. On the one hand, I get it, you should be able to do that, but I think it would surprise people now how thoroughly Bill was a theater person first, by times a thousand. Total lack of vanity. None. He didn’t give a shit how he looked, how he seemed, how something was perceived. [His work] was totally rooted in truth. And it does seem to me he was sort of the embodiment of that Chicago aesthetic. I don’t want to sound cynical, but I don’t know how present it is, anymore. There are still people who are like that, for sure. But I don’t know if that’s going to be the overall arc that we’ll be seeing in the next 50 years. But who knows?
Ostrander: I can’t imagine Bill doing industrials and TV ads, though I don’t know that he avoided it. I just don’t know if he ever really went out for it. If you’re doing a commercial, you’re selling something, whether you believe in it or not. That would seem to me to be the antithesis of who Bill was. There was a time when he thought he was going to be a Franciscan monk.
Mark Larson: Did fame mean anything to him?
Ramsey: I think for Bill it was more about enjoying the respect he got from other actors. He just wanted to be known as the actor who affected audiences when they saw his performances. I think it was that simple. He would have been pleased by all the things people said on Facebook [after his death]. And I also think he would have been embarrassed by it. “Oh, what do they know.”
What he wanted, basically, was to be an actor. He said, “OK, I’ll make this amount of money to pay my bills. And I don’t really need anything above and beyond that. If I have enough money to pay my bills, I’m happy.” He was more interested in that than the latest whatever. He didn’t ask for a lot in terms of material possessions at all. If he had a TV and a glass of Chablis, he was perfectly happy.
Mantegna: If you’re gonna use the word materialistic, Bill’s probably gonna be the least of that of anybody I’ve known. I mean, years ago he was prepared to do a monastic kind of lifestyle, right? So, in other words, anything above that . . . You know? Bill would be the last guy to say, “Hey, look! I got a new shirt! Look at these cool shoes I bought! I got a car!” I mean, Bill was just not about that. The material. He’d’ve been a perfect monk.
But I mean, that’s the Organic, too. We used to joke about it: some things you do in life for the bucks; some things you do for the yucks. And the Organic was definitely for the yucks. We split up the box office and at times you’d make, at best, $25 a week. You’d be much better off on unemployment. But you know, we were young, and we were doing theater, and we loved it. It didn’t matter.
There came a time, though, where a lot of us felt like, we can’t do this forever, we’ve got to move on. And a lot of us did. That was the good thing about Chicago, and it was, at the time, the bad aspect, too. It was like you reach the point where, OK, now what are you going to do, once you started reading reviews of yourself by the same critics that were pretty much the same review you got five years ago? And so, you almost felt like, you got to kind of step out now.
Ramsey: I think Bill wasn’t really interested in the LA experience. I think he was more interested in the Chicago theater scene. That was his bread and butter. But it also was the creativity of the Chicago theater scene that kept him here.
Mantegna: I mean, I love Chicago. Chicago is my hometown, always been my hometown. I’ll die a Cubs fan. I mean, it’s all of that. I never liked the weather in Chicago, though. As it turned out, my career worked out. Bill, though, I think, as long as he got three squares a day, is living in a nice place, he knows all the people around him, why go? I mean, I get that.
Jones: I’m a little bit younger than Bill. We were discovering you could make a living and a life as an artist in Chicago. Bill’s one of the guys who paved the way because he stayed. He stayed and dug in.
Swanson: He told me that the first time he was cast in A Christmas Carol  was the first year he could afford holiday presents for his family.
Ramsey: Like it or not, Christmas Carol followed him to the end of his life.
Schulfer: Bill’s performance, in my opinion, was so terrific that I think it gave the show its integrity, which caused it to be successful from the start and enabled us to revive it, which we really needed to do. At the time we decided to do Christmas Carol, the board wasn’t exactly jumping up and down, saying, “Oh, what a great idea!” Very few theaters were doing it, and it was going to cost a lot of money. And it really was going to have to be revived, you know, for two years after the initial production to recoup its capital investment.
“I credit [Bill] for why our A Christmas Carol is still being done, today,” Schulfer said in Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater, “because in those early years, the adaptation that we used and the production that we did had a lot of problems. Bill’s performance transcended all of that.”
Falls: I tell the story that when I was hired as artistic director [in 1986], the board of directors told me––although I’m sure no one actually said this, but when I tell the story, I always say that they said I could do anything I wanted to. I could program any play I wanted, just don’t fuck with A Christmas Carol. Which is, you know, maybe a little harsher version of the story. But it was true.
I’m interested in what you thought of Bill’s Scrooge.
Ramsey: (Pauses at length.) Now you’re going to make me cry. I didn’t see the first three or four times he did it because I was always working on shows. The first time I saw the transformation . . . Sorry. That got to me completely. I thought, “That’s not Bill.” I couldn’t make the connection that this was the Bill Norris that I know. You know someone well, you know their tricks, you can read their mind, the actor’s mind, and so you’re not reading the character’s mind. But the first time I saw him (pauses), he got me.
Norris played the role of Scrooge for the next 12 seasons. He would continue with the show playing a variety of roles, including Marley and Fezziwig. In Ensemble, Bill told me that “when I felt I had nothing more to discover and nothing more to give, I couldn’t see doing it just for the money. I really couldn’t. I’d grown so fond of the story and the character [ . . . ] that I couldn’t do it for the sake of filling my bank account. It meant too much to me.”
Ramsey: I knew it was exhausting for him. He was doing seven or eight shows a week. And he never missed a performance. We didn’t talk much about the show during those years because he wanted to separate it from himself after he left the theater. He left the character at the door. I tried to make his life, particularly during Christmas, as easy as possible, simply because he needed a place of solitude. There’s a reason he had a glass of Chablis after every performance.
Mula: I succeeded him as Scrooge and that was a big deal. And he did the sweetest thing for that. He kind of gave me his blessing and told me to do my best, and then he promised not to be there for opening night. So, he let me do a show for the opening without worrying about being watched by Bill Norris. But, of course, he had been there, and he saw me afterwards and was very congratulatory and supportive and all of that. I thought that was so considerate and so damn sweet.
Swanson: I first knew Bill as a teacher. I took a class he taught called “How Not to Audition” at Victory Gardens in 1979. That’s when Victory Gardens was where the Metro is now [on Clark Street].
Mula: It was one of the classes that always filled up right away.
Swanson: He had us do an exercise. There were perhaps 20 people in the class. He said, “OK, everybody, your aim is to get my attention.” So, we all immediately ran toward him screaming, waving our arms. And Bill said, “None of you caught my attention. What you did is one option. Here’s another.” He went off by himself and just sat on a chair and was very quiet. Then he said, “The lesson here is, you’ve got to reconsider your first impulse.” I’ve carried that with me.
Ostrander: Bill told me once about one of his students who came up to him and asked him, “Bill, do you think I can act?” And Bill said no. He said, “If you have to ask, the answer is no. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anybody else? That you’re asking means either A) you’re looking for a compliment, or B) you have doubts. And neither serves you.” That was Bill’s attitude.
Swanson: I remember that when he introduced himself on the first day of that class, he gave some of his credentials, and he mentioned that he was gay. It was the first time I had ever heard a person put that into his introduction to a class. And he did it as just one of a long series of descriptors. I can still see and hear it. He had his hands in his pockets, and he said, “I was raised Catholic, went to seminary, I’ve lived in Chicago all my life, I’m gay . . . .” And I remember thinking, well, that’s remarkable.
Were you out yourself at that time?
Nope. But that sure did help.
Ostrander: That’s part of Bill’s honesty. He was a very honest guy, and he was who he was. Bill was like my best friend, and sometimes it kind of surprised me because I’m not gay. So, I asked him, I said, “What do you make of that?” And Bill told me, “John, no self-respecting gay man would ever hit on you. You exude straightness.” His exact words.
How would you describe his sense of humor?
McVay: His wit tended to be dry. Acidic.
Gluck: It was . . . kinda dark. (Laughs.)
Ramsey: Very sly, sarcastic wit.
Mula: Spikey. (Laughs) It was ribald and pointed.
Kleinfeld: Bloomsbury Group, with a Chicago accent.
Ostrander: In a review of Bill’s play, The Paisley Scar, Linda Winer [Chicago Tribune theater and dance critic, 1969-1980] said something like the play was “written in a moment of weakness and directed to death by William J. Norris.” Bill said he was going to use that as the title of his memoir: Written in a Moment of Weakness and Directed to Death by William J. Norris.
Začek: Marcie used the word acidic. That’s a good choice. There was a brief period when Bill was associate artistic director at Victory Gardens. Those were salad days, so he didn’t have a salary. He spent a lot of time reading plays. My idea was that it would be nice to write something back to the playwright that would benefit him or her. And Norris sometimes would write something like “Dog puke!” Really nasty and not at all helpful. I understood that he didn’t like it, but . . .
McVay: When he and Galen got together , that was such a blessing, a softening. To have a partner was really something that made him happy.
Začek: At one point, Bill said to me that he was thinking about retiring from the theater. And I think I said something to him like, “And what are you going to do? You’re too crazy to be in the real world.” I mean, there’s a point where, once you start committing to the theater, you wind up devoting your life to it. And you’re not suited for anything else. I guess you could maybe do something else, but it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.
Swanson: This is the part that gets me a little angry at Chicago, the way it’s ephemeral. There are a lot of artists that use this city as a tarmac, waiting to fly someplace else. But Bill was one who stayed. He was a founding member of this theater community. How do we remember? Do we dim the marquee lights? There are photos and artifacts, but how do we honor those, and remember? To me, he wasn’t just a founding member; he was a sustainer. In late middle age, he did a show with a young up-and-coming theater company called Defiant Theatre because he thought they were talented.
Joe Foust (cofounder, Defiant Theatre): Bill was the first Equity guest artist we had. It was for Apt Pupil , an adaptation of a Stephen King story. We approached him and begged him to do it. He was free at the time, so we figured out how to do a guest contract, which was new to us. It was a big deal to us to have such a name do a Defiant show and it upped our excitement about the whole thing.
The dressing rooms were underneath the bleachers that we had brought in for the audience, so you had to be real quiet. There were little tables and chairs in there. Not cool for the Equity circumstance he was used to. He never complained about any of it. He was game for all of it.
Swanson: Bill’s final line to me, which was almost like something out of a play or movie, was when we met at this bar after a 35-year absence. As I was leaving, he said––I mean, this really is like out of a script––he said, “Paul?” And I turned around, and he said, “Why did you have to grow old?” I said, “It happens, you know.”
Foust: I guess I just thought Bill was indestructible. I didn’t see this coming. I thought he was so intrepid and indestructible that he wasn’t going away.
Ostrander: I learned [of his death] yesterday. It hasn’t really sunk in that I can’t call him up anymore. I can’t hear that voice. I wish I could have . . . Well, I don’t know if I could ever have gotten him to Zoom. He was not keen on technological stuff. But he’s supposed to be there. Now he’s not. Yes, I can talk to him in my head. But I can’t hear his voice, I can’t hear what he’ll say next. The loss I feel is a loss for all of us because of who he was. And I wish, towards the end of his life, we all had made better use of him.
Ramsey: I think the reason Bill decided to move with me to Iowa [where I grew up] is that he wanted a more peaceful environment. And it certainly has been peaceful, most of the time. We got him a recumbent bike, and he loved riding. The streets are relatively flat here, and he didn’t have to worry about traffic. I think one of the things he enjoyed most toward the end was getting out of the house, getting some fresh air, and new scenery, all in his own time. It’s very freeing, and you can do a lot of thinking.
May 3, 2016
Larson: I have thoroughly enjoyed our conversation, Bill. Would you be open to a second interview, soon?
William J. Norris: You realize that with every memory I give you, my brain goes a little more dead?
Larson: What do you mean?
Norris: [If we keep talking] I’ll have nothing left up there. So, if we’re going to talk again, I’m going to have to build up some new memories.
Larson: They just vanish?